Leslee Udwin’s documentary, whether one approves of it or not, has certainly prodded India’s thinking classes, the literati, to examine their double, often triple, standards. The condition of women in the South Asian subcontinent has been positioned by legend, mythology and received texts. We cannot escape from history. If we try to do that then we are traitors to our own heritage.
I therefore present to you the Manusmriti, which was the masterpiece of Manu the Great Lawgiver who codified what we call Hindu society. There has been conflicting speculation as to when the work was written. However, it was the Orientalist Sir William Jones who translated the work into English in 1794. He used original Sanskrit manuscripts.
Manu equates women with Shudras, the caste born with no rights. He writes unequivocally: “Like a Shudra, a woman is entitled to only one sacrament and that is marriage.” A women’s position, like that of the Shudras was always to be one of subservience. As a girl she was under the authority of her father, as a married woman under her husband, and as a widow under her son. Indeed, her husband was her Pati-Dev (‘Husband-God’) and had to be worshipped by a faithful wife even though he might be “destitute of virtue” or “seek pleasure elsewhere”. Women, like Shudras, were not entitled to education, property or independence.
A man, according to Manu, was permitted to take as many wives as he wished. A woman was only permitted to marry once in her lifetime and hence there was no question of her marrying again should her husband decide to leave her or should he happen to die. A widow, especially a young one, was regarded as evil. If she were a faithful virtuous wife why would her Pati-Dev have died?
Wifebeating is common in India, more so in the villages where most Indians live. However, a good woman especially one from a ‘respectable high caste family’ never talks about the physical abuse she receives or the sexual abuse she might have to endure from her senior male relatives. Girls from their very childhood have been taught by their mothers that family honour (izzat) rests primarily in the hands of the women. If a woman has to suffer then that is her fate which the gods have ordained; she must keep her mouth shut so that the izzat of the family is unsullied.
Manu sanctioned wife beating “with a rope or a split bamboo”. The edict, in order to be even-handed, did specify that a man could mete out similar punishment to his son, his slave, his pupil and his younger brother.
Because low-caste women had to go out to work in order to supplement the family income they were, in an odd way, freer than high-caste women who were, until quite recently, largely housebound. Men from the Brahmin and Kshatriya castes thought it quite natural to exercise their droit de seigneur.
Any winsome low-caste girl, married or unmarried, was fair game. Indeed, the girl was sometimes all too flattered that the eyes of the Pandit-ji or the Thakur Sahib of the village had settled on her. Her husband or father, too, would be silently flattered but would pretend not to know what was afoot. However, when the time came for him to pay his rent or settle his debt, he knew that he would be generously treated.
Whenever you question an ‘authority on ancient India’ you will invariably be given a a lecture on the great wisdom of the rishis (sages) and how pure and glorious was India before it was polluted by the mlechh (unclean) invaders. You will be bombarded with quotations from the holy books to ‘prove’ every fantastic claim.
In India the birth of a female child is generally regarded as an unhappy event. The family would have to start collecting money for her dowry. Boys are the ones who collect dowries from their wives’ families. Hence female foetuses are aborted. Professor Jha’s team in Toronto researched abortion in India and arrived at the following frightening conclusion: in India half a million female foetuses are aborted every year. It is illegal, but abortion in India is still big business.
The importance of producing sons, or at least one son, is magnified in Hindu society as only a son can perform the funeral rites of his father. This stipulation is thankfully now being relaxed in urban educated families.
Manu the Sage also implanted the dangerous belief that women were devious, basically untrustworthy and sexually promiscuous. Here are four quotations from him:
“Through their passion for men… through their natural heartlessness, they become
disloyal towards husbands however carefully they may be guarded.”
“Women do not care for beauty…they give themselves to the handsome and the ugly.”
“One should not sit in a lonely place with one’s mother, sister or daughter…”
“It is in the nature of women to seduce men.”
He decreed that a woman caught in adultery should be devoured by dogs in a public place. There is no such penalty for men who indulge in adultery. Obviously the Sages of old were not as wise as they are made out to be.
The sacred books have countless examples of women being nothing more than the property of men. In the Mahabharata the five Pandav brothers share one wife, Draupadi. The eldest brother, addicted to gambling, even stakes Draupadi. He loses and Draupadi is handed over to the Kauravs. Krishna, the god who delivered the Gita, married off his sister Subhadra with a huge dowry which included a thousand beautiful girls for the pleasure of his brother-in-law. When Rama married Sita his father-in-law Janak presented him with dasis, female slaves.
It is against this background that we must consider India’s Daughter. Merely hanging the rapists is not going to solve the problem. The deeply embedded cultural conditioning of South Asia which is patriarchal and hierarchical has got to be addressed with an open mind, frankly and honestly.